The doctrines espoused by the True and Living Church (TLC) of Manti, Utah regarding the Keys of Sealing are intriguing. They do not assert a direct physical line of authority leading back to Joseph Smith as other larger "fundamentalist" organizations.
A pamphlet published in the early 1990s by James Harmston, president of the TLC, implied a rather unique claim to priesthood authority. In it he alluded to remarkable visions which he claimed to have received. Then he penned: "Once again, the everlasting gospel was committed to man on earth by the angels of God" (p. 4; emphasis added).
Mr. Harmston wrote that angels had "once again" committed the everlasting gospel to man on earth. If he was also claiming that priesthood authority and keys were "committed" to him at that time, then this would represent a new priesthood dispensation being given to him. It might be diagramed:
GOD > JS > BY > JT > > > > > eventually lost
GOD > James Harmston > True and Living Church
Of course there are significant problems claiming a newer "dispensation" after Joseph Smith. The word "dispensation" comes from the root word "dispense." It refers to a "dispensing" of truth and authority from heaven to God’s prophet on earth. It happened through Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, the Savior and in the latter days - through Joseph Smith.
The Last Dispensation
Several scriptures indicate that the dispensation given to Joseph Smith was the last one this earth would realize:
"Therefore, thou art blessed from henceforth that bear the keys of the kingdom given unto you; which kingdom is coming forth for the last time" (D&C 90:2; emphasis added).
"For unto you, the Twelve, and those, the First Presidency, who are appointed with you to be your counselors and your leaders, is the power of this priesthood given, for the last days and for the last time, in the which is the dispensation of the fulness of times" (D&C 112:30; emphasis added).
Since Joseph Smith, There Has Been No Apostasy
Heavenly Father knew what He was doing when He reestablished His Church in 1830. The work of the prophet Joseph Smith was foreknown and prophesied by several prophets millennia before (see 2 Ne. 3:7-16, Ezek. 37:15-20, Moses 1:41 etc.). Certainly God also knew every other Church President who would be called to lead His Church after Joseph Smith as well.
In light of God's foreknowledge, it makes no sense to assert that He would have allowed a man to become Church President who subsequently would guide the Church into apostasy and corrupt the keys of the priesthood. If a certain man was inclined to lead the people astray, the Lord had the knowledge and power to not call him as an apostle. Or if an apostle was teaching false doctrines, God could simply remove him from the earth through death.
The gospel restored through Joseph Smith is destined to "roll forth unto the ends of the earth, as the stone which is cut out of the mountain without hands shall roll forth, until it has filled the whole earth" (D&C 65:2). It is very short-sighted to believe that God would permit a detour (perhaps through Manti, Utah). There is no reason to suppose that it happened. And it hasn't.
Reincarnated Joseph Smith(?)
Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. Several requests were made to a "Seventy" in the "True and Living Church" to explain their "line of authority" for the keys of sealing. After rather caustic criticisms for asking about the topic, he finally provided the following:
God > Joseph Smith > James Harmston
It appears that a fundamental teaching of the True and Living Church involves what they have called, "Multiple Mortal Probations" (or MMP). TLC doctrines hold that men and women may have more than one mortal probation upon this earth. A spirit may endure mortality, die, and then later be born as a baby again on earth. And so on.
MMP is very similar to the Buddhist teaching of reincarnation which teaches that human beings are always reincarnated as human beings (in contrast to the Hindu version which teaches that humans can be reincarnated as animals, insects etc.).
If Joseph Smith were to return to this world as another person, ostensibly he might bring his priesthood keys with him (see D&C 112:15 for justification). This would eliminate the need for a line of authority similar to that claimed by other "fundamentalist" groups.
Reincarnation or "Multiple Mortal Personalities" is a False Doctrine
The idea of reincarnation is not new. In 1889, President Wilford Woodruff addressed the topic:
I have heard that in Zion there are some men who entertain the idea that they inherit the body and spirit of Moses, or Abraham, or David, or Noah, or somebody other than themselves. I hope none of you here indulge in anything of this kind, because it is a most foolish, nonsensical and false doctrine. You gaze upon a man who professes to have inherited the body or spirit of Moses, or any of those I have named, and I think you will conclude that his appearance does not indicate that such is the case; at any rate, it certainly has not improved him. Brother Woodruff, Brother Cannon, Brother Smith, Brother Lorenzo Snow, or any of the brethren, will never inherit anyone's body or spirit but their own, in time or in eternity, unless the devil gets into them. It is Satan who inspires men to believe in such absurd things. He delights in having any of the brethren entertain false ideas, no matter what they are. I tell you that whoever sees me in time or eternity will see Wilford Woodruff, not Noah, nor Abraham, nor Enoch. Every man has his own identity, and he never will lose that identity. Therefore, when you hear such doctrine as that advanced, do not believe it. There are a good many things Satan would like us to believe; but we must guard against these. (Deseret New Weekly, 38:822-24, Collected Discourses, 1:262-63, emphasis added.)
President George Q. Cannon, a member of the First Presidency taught:
That a belief in reincarnation should prevail among the Latter-day Saints seems strange for there is nothing in the Gospel, as taught in the Bible, in the Book of Mormon, in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants or in the teachings of inspired men, that furnishes the least foundation for such a conception. It is true that pre-existence is taught; but the pre-existence in which we believe is confined to our first estate. We are taught that our present life is our second estate, and this is a probation given unto us in which to gain experience and to be tried and purified to prepare us for our next estate. The teachings of men who have had a deep understanding concerning the purpose of our Great Creator in placing us here in this condition of existence show that this is the grand opportunity which is given to man—an opportunity which he must not fail to avail himself of as it is the only opportunity that he will have on the earth; his earthly existence is confined to one appearance in the flesh.
Life Is Linear
One plain doctrine of the restored gospel is that life is linear. No recycling. We were created spiritually as sons and daughters of Heavenly Parents. We all existed in the premortal realms in a probationary atmosphere for millions, if not billions, of years. There we progressed until the moment came for us to be granted a brief but immensely important time on this earth (a "small moment" D&C 121:7).
Earth life was a continuation of our "probationary state" (Alma 12:24). Here we are to be "proven" (Abr. 3:25). When our time here is completed, death sends our spirits to dwell in the Spirit World until the resurrection. Brigham Young explained: "After the spirit leaves the body, it remains without a tabernacle in the spirit world until the Lord, by his law that he has ordained, brings to pass the resurrection of the dead" (Discourses of Brigham Young, p.372). This is the Plan of Salvation.
A person may choose to believe the concept of "Multiple Mortal Probations" (or Buddhist reincarnation), but he or she should understand that it clearly contradicts the restored gospel as taught in the scriptures, by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and every other Church leader.
The doctrine of "Multiple Mortal Probations" presents many problems. The Doctrine and Covenants tells us that "the spirit of man is in the likeness of his person" (D&C 77:2). Consequently, a reincarnated person would be expected to look exactly the same during every mortal lifetime.
In addition, we are told that in the resurrection: "They who are of a celestial spirit shall receive the same body which was a natural body" (D&C 88:28; italics added). Brigham Young gave details:
When the angel who holds the keys of the resurrection shall sound his trumpet, then the peculiar fundamental particles that organized our bodies here, if we do honor to them, though they be deposited in the depths of the sea, and though one particle is in the north, another in the south, another in the east, and another in the west, will be brought together again in the twinkling of an eye, and our spirits will take possession of them. (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 372.)
If a spirit had inhabited numerous "natural bodies" during multiple probations on earth, which one of those bodies would he receive in the resurrection?
Alma taught plainly that there are no one returns to earth for a second probation after their initial mortal demise:
Now, concerning the state of the soul between death and the resurrection - Behold, it has been made known unto me by an angel, that the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed from this mortal body, yea, the spirits of all men, whether they be good or evil, are taken home to that God who gave them life.
And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow....
[T]here is a space between death and the resurrection of the body, and a state of the soul in happiness or in misery until the time which is appointed of God that the dead shall come forth, and be reunited, both soul and body, and be brought to stand before God, and be judged according to their works. (Alma 40:11-12,21; italics added.)
Joseph Smith explained: "I want to talk more of the relation of man to God. I will open your eyes in relation to the dead.... for all the spirits who have not obeyed the Gospel in the flesh must either obey it in the spirit or be damned." (History of the Church, 6:312.) If reincarnation or MMP were a true doctrine, unruly spirits could be channeled back to earth for another try. But life is linear. If spirits are disobedient "in the flesh," their only option is to "obey in the spirit or be damned."
Brigham Young also acknowledged that after death, our only chance for "schooling" is "in the spirit":
If a person is baptized for the remission of sins, and dies a short time thereafter, he is not prepared at once to enjoy a fulness of the glory promised to the faithful in the Gospel; for he must be schooled while in the spirit, in the other departments of the house of God, passing on from truth to truth, from intelligence to intelligence, until he is prepared to again receive his body and to enter into the presence of the Father and the Son. (Discourses of Brigham Young, pp. 378-379.)
John Taylor plainly taught that: "there is a place called ‘Paradise,’ to which the spirits of the dead go, awaiting the resurrection, and their reunion with the body" (The Government of God, Ch.5). No Church leader has ever taught that any of the spirits in the Spirit World are awaiting a second (or third, fourth or fifth etc.) opportunity to return to earth.
President Joseph F. Smith summarized the process saying:
It is true, all of us are clothed with mortality, but our spirits existed long before they took upon them this tabernacle that we now inhabit. When this body dies, the spirit does not die. The spirit is an immortal being, and when separated from the body takes its flight to the place prepared for it, and there awaits the resurrection of the body, when the spirit will return again and re-occupy this tabernacle which it occupied in this world. (Gospel Doctrine, p. 444; see also D&C 138).